Soon after Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was published in 1755, so the story goes, he was approached by a pair of prudish readers who commended him for omitting ‘improper’ words. Johnson, according to one account, replied to the women: ‘What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?’
Today you can find improper words in any good dictionary – but only the main set. Fuck is there, but not fuckish, fuckfaced, fuck-nutty, fuck my old boots!, or fuck the dog and sell the pups. You’ll see shit in the usual sources, but good luck finding shit-breath, shit factory, shit-squirting, shit out, or shit on the dining room table.* Regular dictionaries just don’t cover the remarkable range of taboo vocabulary, nor should they.
For this we turn to specialist slang dictionaries. These do not shy from obscenity but embrace it in all its mutable monstrousness (I say this as someone who loves monsters, and mutants). And the best slang dictionary in existence – it defines, expertly, all the phrases above and thousands like them – is Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS). Last year it went online. If that’s news to you, prepare for a treat.
At this writing, my son, Ollie, is seven-and-a-half years wise, so of course he’s begun to swear, albeit on mostly innocuous terms. Trust me, he hasn’t learned to swear from his mom or dad. We’re careful to set a good example around the kids. And we’re not big swearers ourselves. True, every time Jenny heard George W. Bush talk about the Iraq War on the radio she muttered, “Pig-fucker,” but that was before we had children, and given recent political events in America, she’s unexpectedly nostalgic, historically and linguistically revisionist.
Ollie has picked up profanity from friends, of course. He has no phone yet and doesn’t text, so OMG isn’t in his spoken lexicon. He can’t depend on initialism for euphemism. He started to interject Oh, my god in the usual places — frustration with his parents’ decisions, moments of surprise or wonder, frustration with intractable Legos or intermittent Netflix, well, mostly frustration, I guess. We sympathize and we know, too, that frustration often requires verbal expression and relief. Nevertheless, we discourage Oh, my god and recommend Oh, my gosh, instead.
Led by the likes of A. S. Colborne and Roland Sawyer, millions of Americans have joined anti-profanity movements and sworn to eradicate swearing. Despite their fervor and persistence, nothing much has changed over the last century or so. Well, except that there’s more swearing. Perhaps only divine intervention can rid the world of bad language. That’s more or less what the newish, unusual NBC sitcom The Good Place proposes.
The Good Place premiered on NBC on 19 September 2016 and ran for thirteen episodes. It’s been renewed for a second thirteen-episode season to begin 28 September 2017. Its creator and show-runner, Michael Schur, has a sense of humor devilish or divine, depending on how you look at it. Here’s the premise: just a few remarkably good and productive people make it to the Good Place and everyone else — statistically, everybody — goes to the Bad Place.
When I read a recent article by Charles P. Pierce in Esquire about Russian-related dirty tricks in the 2016 US election, something caught my eye: ratfcking and ratfck.
Now, obviously this is ratfucking and ratfuck without the u. I’ve already talked about obscuring of sonority peaks (consonant nuclei) in “Why the f— do we do this and why the —k don’t we do that?” But in this case it’s not ratf*cking or ratf–cking. The vowel isn’t obscured. It’s just pulled out like a card from a deck.
Obviously, Mr. Pierce – should you talk to him in person – might well pronounce the word with the u intact. This ratfcking is likely a delicacy enforced by a nod to decorum in print. But here’s the thing: When I’m talking in a context where I don’t want to be too obtrusively vulgar but I still want to express vehemence (there are a lot of contexts of this sort), I will actually say “fcking,” /fˑkɪŋ/. So I wondered whether this kind of thing is catching on in print.
It’s not, not really. Ratfcking is a rare hit, and not widespread. You can find a few instances of bullsht and cockscker but almost none of motherfcker or just about any other one you can think of. The various corpora turn up no hits at all for most of them. (Those fcking asshles.)
But is ratfcking a possible word in English? Continue reading